HARVARD SQUARE COMMENTARY

April 14, 2008
Implication for the Long Run

Developments Last Week

John Turner


Goals for Iraq
April 8, 2008

The editors of the New York Times say that neither Petraeus nor Bush have a strategy for ending "America's disastrous involvement in Iraq." That may well be true, but so what?

The Times editors are exhibiting their typical half-courage. They'll say there is no plan, but they won't venture to speculate on why there's no plan. What makes them think there's any reason for Bush to spend time thinking about a program for shutting the war down. He has said, time and again, that he wants victory. And victory in the mind of a man like Bush means total domination, a thing that can't be imagined without generations of violent conflict.

We should keep in mind what the war has brought. The political class with which the president associates himself have gained wealth and power beyond the levels of reason. They enjoy benefits so far exceeding possibility for an ordinary person they have cause to view themselves as set apart -- and above -- the general run of humanity. Why give up their status?

The Times won't face the obvious truth that war is good for certain persons. They compose a small minority, but recently in America they have had the majority of power. And most of the political class has been afraid to challenge them.  The overreach of this minority for wealth and power is now beginning to bring consequences that even the major media outlets can't ignore. So they flail about with charges of ineptitude and lack of planning. But inadequate skill and poor plans have never been the problem concerning the invasion and occupation of Iraq.


Achieving Nativeness in Iraq
April 8, 2008

I've had a hard time understanding this, but it's gradually coming through to me that only a small portion of the persons born and raised in Iraq are Iraqis.

Every day, in the great American newspapers and on the great American TV networks, I find out that "Iraqi" forces have attacked groups made of people who are named in various ways but are never called Iraqis, even though they probably have never spent a single day outside the country.

It seems to be the case that the only people in Iraq who are Iraqis are those employed by the U.S. government or the fairly small group connected in some way to the Maliki operation. All the rest, maybe as much as three-quarters of the population, are something else.

How this came to be the case, I'm not sure. But it must be true because I read it every day in the New York Times.

It makes me wonder at times whether I'm actually an American. As far as I can tell, my ancestors arrived in Virginia in the late 17th century, and all my forebears have been in this country ever since. Still, I wonder if I've been properly anointed. It's one of those mysterious things you can't be sure about nowadays.


Necessities
April 8, 2008

It is now a requirement to say that you have deep respect for John McCain's military service to his country, that is if you're involved in politics in any way. Jay Rockefeller found that out when he said that McCain probably didn't care much about the people he dropped bombs on from 35,000 feet.

I once thought it would be a good idea to perform some sort of political function in the United States. That notion has long since passed and I now find myself rejoicing almost every day that I'm not locked in the verbal straitjacket politics demands.

I don't mind saying that I have little respect for McCain's military service. I have sympathy for him. I regret that he had to suffer long years of imprisonment under harsh conditions. But that's a different thing than respecting what he did before he was shot down.

I don't condemn young men for going to war and doing the terrible things their superiors order them to do. Mostly, they are too young and too intellectually innocent to know any better. Furthermore, they swim in a culture which tells them that when they do these things they bring honor to themselves and to their country. I was a young soldier once myself  and remember how that felt. Though I don't think I would have done every single thing my superiors might have commanded me to do, I certainly would have done most of what they ordered.  I was too callow then to have known the meaning of what I did.

Consequently, though I would not have deserved to be condemned for acts of war, neither would I have deserved to be deeply respected for them. If there's one thing the people of the United States need to get through their heads it's that war is not a respectable activity. It stinks. I agree that on rare occasions we may be forced to engage in it. But it still stinks.

John McCain's experiences in the Vietnam War have nothing to do with his qualifications to be president unless he learned something positive from them. So far, he hasn't done a very good job of telling us about that. But, keep in mind, you can't say that if you're a politician.


Soothsayers
April 9, 2008

A satirical point made by the website Democracy's Arsenal about the Senate testimony yesterday is well taken:

Ambassador Crocker again refuses to engage in hypotheticals with Senator Biden. Unless we
hypothetically talk about leaving Iraq, in which case he is absolutely sure that everything
would fall apart and the world would end.

Probably the greatest propaganda success the Bush administration has achieved has been brainwashing most Americans into believing that if U.S. forces were withdrawn from Iraq, there would be great upheavals in the Middle East accompanied by gigantic loss of life. How anyone knows this is seldom discussed. It doesn't have to be discussed. It has become a factoid.

It would be foolish for me to say I know what would happen, because I don't. In that respect I'm on the same footing as everybody else in the world. It seems possible to me that in Iraq, the various regions exist in a kind of balance of power that would prevent any of them from a wholesale slaughter of others. But, as I say, I can't be sure.

There are some things we do know, though. They have already been demonstrated. As long as American forces remain in the country, a sizable portion of the Iraqi population will resent them. Consequently, efforts will be made to drive the occupiers out. In response to those efforts, the American forces will continue to act as they have acted for the past five years. They will bomb houses that have little children in them. They will send patrols into neighborhoods to kick in doors in the middle of the night. They will keep on killing people at checkpoints. They will, simply by their presence, continue to humiliate young men on the streets of their home towns.

There seems to be something going on in America to deactivate memory. We simply can't recall testimony that is made over and again. We don't remember that on May 4th of 2007, the Office of the Surgeon General of the U.S. Army Medical Command released a report which informed us that 38% of the Marines in Iraq think Iraqi civilians should be treated with dignity and respect. You don't have to be an arithmetical genius to figure that 62% of the Marines care nothing for the dignity of Iraqis. And the Marines will behave accordingly, regardless of the public relations announcements issued by the office of General Petraeus.

We forget that just last year, Sergeant John Bruhns, who took part in nearly a thousand raids on Iraqi houses said this about the effect on the head of every house his team invaded: "So you've just humiliated him in front of his entire family and terrorized his entire family and you've destroyed his home. And then you go right next door and do the same thing in a hundred homes."

People who do things of that character are not loved, even if they are sweet boys from Topeka, or Huntsville, and are heroes, every one.

We forget that billions have been spent in a supposed attempt to repair the infrastructure of Iraqi cities and yet conditions there remain worse than they were before the invasion, because a goodly portion of the funds allotted have been stolen, and because there are thousands of Iraqis determined to sabotage anything the Americans do in the country.

A hostile occupation of a nation is not a pretty business, and nothing we can do will make it sweet or lovely. This we do know.

If we're going to listen to Petraeus, we should listen to all he says and recall that one of his favorite axioms used to be, "Any army of liberation has a certain half-life before it becomes an army of occupation." That transition occurred years ago in Iraq.

If there is to be a serious debate about withdrawing American forces from Iraq, it seems to me that what we do know ought to be given more weight than what we don't.


The Real Stakes
April 11, 2008

I was glad to see Joe Klein, writing in Time, suggest that the Bush administration's genuine motive throughout the Iraq adventure has been to establish permanent military bases in that country. It's a theme that has hovered on the outskirts of the media's coverage of Iraq and that should have been right at the center.

It seems clear to me that maintaining a major military presence in a client country in the Middle East has been the only serious goal of Bush and his closest advisors since the drumbeat for war was initiated. The other excuses -- weapons of mass destruction, liberation of the Iraqi people, reducing the prospects of terrorist attacks in the West -- had almost no influence on the policy. They were simply public relations ploys and nothing else.

The Bush team wants to dominate the Middle East. And being essentially militarists the only way they can imagine domination is through the use of military force. It's not a particularly surprising policy. You might say it has been the most common form of foreign relations since the time of the Roman Empire. And considering who Bush, Cheney, Rumsfeld, and Wolfowitz are, you would expect them to be drawn to the oldest and least imaginative foreign policy capable of being adopted.

The genuine issue is whether the United States should seek to control the flow of natural resources -- and particularly oil -- all around the world by the use and threat of military force. Is that a wise policy, or is it foolish? Why can that debate not take place openly?

The reason, of course, is that in order to befuddle the American people, U.S. political leadership has sought to portray our government not as an organization devoted to the well-being of the American people but, rather, as God's agency on earth. And since we are God's soldiers -- Christian soldiers, so to speak -- we have the perfect moral right to smash anyone who gets in our way.

If that's the premise, then, of course, to argue about the best way for the United States to live in equity with the other people of the world becomes irrelevant.

Klein ends his column with this comment, "I suspect the central question in Iraq now is not whether things will get better but whether the drive for a long-term, neocolonialist presence will make the situation irretrievably worse."

Good luck on getting that question discussed seriously.


The Biggest Mistake
April 13, 2008

So now we have another politician in trouble for telling the truth. When will they learn?

Barack Obama said that many people are so discouraged by a manipulative, dysfunctional political system, they have turned to devices and attitudes that will do nothing to remedy social problems. In doing so, he violated the signal rule of American politics. You can say nothing that even hints that the American people are not the brightest, most optimistic, most efficient, and most deeply moral population that has ever existed on the face of the earth. Self worship is the American religion, and if God himself raised questions about its veracity, he would be dumped in the garbage can.

Anybody who challenges the American dogma, or even wonders if it's perfectly valid, must be an elitist snob, or a communist pig, or a fascist creep.

If Obama were bolder than he is he would seize this opportunity to tell the people that inability to discuss what's true about America is crippling us. But I'm sure all his advisors are telling him to run away from that tactic as fast as possible. Instead, he must follow the sacred tradition of abject apology for truth-telling.

We are pretty close in this country to creating a political system in which even a tincture of self-respect disqualifies a person for public office. We can have egomaniacs, but can't have people who care enough about their own intellectual integrity to stand up for it.


Politico/Militaristic Jargon
April 13, 2008

I wish everyone in the country could read Dick Cavett's column in the April 11th New York Times, titled "Memo to Petraeus and Crocker: More Laughs Please."

But as I say so I wonder what percentage of the population would get his point.

It must be the case that some people find the stilted, pretentious talk that comes from generals and cops and fire chiefs impressive. If that weren't the case, why would they keep on using it?

Cavett implies that the sort of phony language we've heard from Petraeus lately is employed deliberately to keep people from grasping what he's really talking about.  Perhaps that's true. But I can't help thinking there may be another explanation.

What if that's the only way Petraeus can talk? What if it's an accurate display of his mind? That would be far more horrible than simple cynical manipulation. I'm not seriously offended by politicians who figure they understand the yokels and consciously use language that will keep them jumping though hoops. That at least has a coloration of practicality about it. But if officials like Petraeus actually think like they talk, my God! We're in the hands of some sort of trans-human creatures who have successfully substituted creaky mechanisms for brain function.

Come to think of it, that is pretty close to what current behavior tells us is happening.


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